With Suni Lee's gold-medal performance putting the Twin Cities' Hmong community in the international spotlight, there couldn't be a better time for Ho-Shia Aaron Thao's new ballet to hit the Cowles Center stage.
"Diaspora: A Mother's Elegy," premiering Saturday, delves into the Hmong history of migration from Southeast Asia to the United States following the Vietnam War.
For Thao, who is from Brooklyn Center and now leads Hudson Ballet in White Plains, N.Y., the production is not just a homecoming, but a way of giving back to his community.
That's something he learned from his family — particularly his father, who worked as a tutor, then lawyer, and later a minister. "Watching how my dad served the Hmong community, and really giving back what he had to offer, gave me a sense of service and purpose," he said.
Thao takes on his own family's story in "Diaspora," a five-act ballet that centers on his mother's relationship with her grandmother, beginning with their time in Laos, to the refugee camps in Thailand, and finally the United States.
"What it's about is a mother's love — and love loss," Thao said. "My mom explained that she never felt loved by her own mother in comparison to her younger sister. I think she felt distant from her, and it's had a long-lasting effect on how she sees and values herself."
Thao's grandmother tried to marry off her daughters during their time in refugee camps. Perhaps that was to protect them, but his mother didn't see it that way.
"A lot of this story was told to me from my mother, after my grandmother passed away, which is kind of where my ballet starts and ends — on her deathbed," Thao said.
Thao's grandmother was a shaman, and that traditional healing art form shows up in the ballet. Thao also worked with his mom to include elements of traditional Hmong clothing in the performers' costumes.
The work is a partnership between Hudson Ballet and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), a St. Paul organization that supports Hmong artists. The choreographer approached CHAT two years ago.
"I said that it was a wonderful idea," said CHAT's executive director, Steve Thao (no relation to Ho-Shia). "I saw it as a juxtaposition of a classical art genre with telling a new story that hasn't been told on that platform."
The center was able to find funding for the production, as well as a donor who purchased tickets for Hmong veterans and elders to see the show.
"I think this is going in the right steps of expanding the narrative of Hmong Americans," Steve Thao said. "It is a universal story about change and evolution and growth."
A late bloomer
Thao got a late start in ballet. He was struggling with anxiety while attending medical school at the University of Minnesota, so his sister suggested they take a dance class together at Zenon in downtown Minneapolis. The teacher — John Munger — encouraged Thao to take ballet class, and when he did, he immediately connected to it.
"It fit my body really well, and I would say my facility in general," he said. "I kind of latched onto it as an escape from my studies and as an escape just from what I was dealing with personally with my family at the time."
Thao got a grant from medical school to study art and medicine, and spent a summer in New York taking classes. He soon realized his path was on the dance floor rather than a hospital. He eventually co-founded Hudson Ballet, which now has a school and a professional company.
"Teaching and leading my own company now feels like really a culmination of everything that I've experienced," he said.
He set the ballet to Dvorak's New World Symphony, and pieces from the composer's American String Quartet and Quintet. The work also has elements of Hmong arts and culture, including a piece featuring a Hmong Chinese flute.
Besides a core group from Hudson Ballet, dancers from St. Paul's Ballet Co.Laboratory also will perform in the show. Thao said he's gotten some criticism for having non-Asian dancers play some of the characters, but for him, he sees the work as his own interpretation.
"It's a love letter to this community, that I think for a long time I longed to be a part of, but may not necessarily felt like I had a place in," Thao said.
In the work, he plays his father. "We've been told that I look just like him, so it's kind of funny to get to present as him on stage."
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist and critic.